Maila Nurmi was the first goth. She was Elvira before that was even a name. She was used up, spit out and stomped all over by Hollywood. But she still continues to inspire.
Vampira was an icon. Starting on May 1, 1954, The Vampira Show (the show actually premiered the night before, but it was not called that names and it was considered a preview) opened each night with the pale goddess walking as if in a trance down a foggy hallway, screaming, then reclining on a couch where she would make fun of the movies she was about to show.
She became a star, appearing in LIFE Magazine, running for Night Mayor of Hollywood, being used as the model for Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and being nominated for a Los Angeles area Emmy Award as Most Outstanding Female Personality in 1954. She lost to Lucille Ball. And as soon as fame came to her, it went away.
She appeared in films like Too Much, Too Soon, The Magic Sword, I Passed for White, Sex Kittens Go to College, The Big Operator and The Beat Generation in a role that was as close to the real Maila Nurmi as any she would play. She started to refer to Vampira as another person. And her role as Vampira in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space has lived on and on.
What hasn’t lived on are video versions of her in the role. Many TV stations constantly retaped over expensive videotapes, so until her later years, Maila never saw herself in the role.
That’s why R.H. Greene’s documentary is so good. He took his 2010 radio documentary (first broadcast by NPR channel KPCC and available here on their site) to the next level, including an extended interview with his subject from a 1997 interview.
The story is not happy. By 1962, Nurmi was making a living installing linoleum flooring and running an antique store called Vampira’s Attic. Years later, in 1981, she was asked by KHJ-TV to revive her Vampira character. Working closely with the producers of the new show, she was due to be the executive producer but left the project over creative differences.
The station chose Cassandra Peterson to play the part, but was now unable to use the name Vampira. Renaming her Elvira, she shot to fame overnight.
Nurmi sued, by lost when a court ruled that “likeness means actual representation of another person’s appearance and not simply close resemblance.” Peterson stated that Elvira was nothing like Vampira. After all, the only similarity was that she wore a black dress and had black hair. Right? Wrong. Nurmi claimed that the entire Elvira persona, which included her pun-filled patter, was based on her. And she lost. It’s still amazing to me.
After that, Nurmi nearly disappeared, other than playing with the band Satan’s Cheerleaders and appearing with Tomata du Plenty of The Screamers in Rene Daalder’s punk rock musical Population: 1 (in the interview on the film, the director said, “There was a wild lady living out in back in a shed. Tomata befriended her and found out she had played Vampira.).
In the early days of the internet — 2001 — she started running her own site, selling autographs from her small North Hollywood apartment.
The film doesn’t shy from the saddest parts of her life, such as her rumored love affair with James Dean or the stalker who attacked her in 1955, years before the media even knew what a stalker was.
This is more than a documentary. It feels like a labor of love. I learned so much about the person behind the icon, which is what a true documentary should be all about.